Green shoots: Cork teenagers on why the planet needs to clean up its act

Aisha Devoy, Rosscarbery; Jessica Gill, Bandon; and Cathal Brennan, Kinsale from Bandon Grammar School. Picture: Denis Boyle

At lunchtime on Friday, March 15 in the atrium of the brand-new Edmund Rice College, Carrigaline, Co Cork, the atmosphere was electric.

The entire 238-strong student body, along with every staff member, had gathered together to heed the call of 16-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg, and to join in a worldwide schools strike to protest against climate change.

UN climate scientists warn that man-made climate change has brought us to a global tipping point, one which will affect all our lives.

Rising seas and severe weather events take a heavy toll, often upon our poorest people, but climate change carries a hefty financial price-tag too, with a recent report suggesting the effects of melting ice caps will cost up to $70 trillion. (A trillion is a thousand billion. To put that into context, the global GDP in 2016 was around $76 trillion.)

With governments fixated on short-term economics and election cycles, and mostly ignoring climate change, children the world over have decided to provide the leadership so sorely lacking from adults.

In Carrigaline, replicating scenes all over the country, all over the planet, schoolchildren took to the streets in face-paint and high-viz jackets, noisily chanting slogans, and carrying colourful placards.

‘You’ll die of old age, but I’ll die of climate change’. ‘Stop denying the Earth is dying’. ‘We have no say but we will pay’. ‘Give us our future back’. ‘There is no Planet B’.

As they marched to the park in Carrigaline, the students were cheered on by beeping motorists and waving pedestrians.

They stopped en route to drop letters to the offices of local TDs, politicians all too aware that they were meeting not just future voters, but perhaps future candidates as well.

“These are the days they’ll remember,” school principal Adele Flynn says of her charges later, “and the great thing is it’s all student-led. This all came from the first years.”

The environmental organisation Friends of the Earth reckons about 15,000 Irish pupils took part in school strikes.

Globally, more than 1.4m students participated. In Ireland, the strikes were organised by loosely affiliated, non-hierarchical students’ groups.

There is no central voice, but they seem to be doing fine all the same.

One of the organisers of the Carrigaline strike was 13-year-old Charlotte Rogers.

“I knew students all over the world, people my age, were going on strike to highlight climate disruption, so I felt we needed to get involved. We were meeting after school, and we were met initially with disappointing reactions,” she says.

A school-wide competition to design posters for the strike, and announcements over the school intercom, helped to change minds and to sharpen the focus on climate change.

Clara Kamlah, 13, was another of the leading voices behind the Carrigaline strike.

I’ve grown up in an environmentally conscious home and we recycle everything. I’ve recently become a vegan.

"Some people say they’re scared by climate change, but they can be slow to actually do anything about it.”

Clara says Greta Thunberg has been a great inspiration in making climate disruption relevant to her generation.

By any measure, Greta Thunberg is an extraordinary figure. Aged 16, she has already been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Last August she posed a pretty difficult question to Swedish parliamentarians: what is the point of pupils learning anything, if politicians continue to ignore an extinction event barrelling down the road toward those children?

Declaring a one-girl school strike, she sat on the pavement outside the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, with a hand-painted placard.

Eight months on, she has inspired more than a million children, in over 70 countries across the globe, to join her.

In Bandon Grammar School’s picturesque sunken garden, Aisha Devoy, 17, Cathal Brennan and Jessica Gill, both 18, reminisce about attending the Cork City strike.

“There was such energy, and that was really encouraging to see,” says Aisha.

Greta Thunberg

People hung around afterwards, she says, and new friendships were made.

“When we gathered initially at the Opera House, it was just a few hundred people,” says Cathal.

“But by the time we got to City Hall, there was more than 3,000 of us. It was brilliant to see so many impassioned people our age.”

Jessica says she is very much looking forward to the next schools’ strike, which is scheduled for May 24.

Eamon Ryan, leader of the Green Party, believes Greta Thunberg’s contribution has been a game changer.

He feels it is a very positive development to see so many young people passionate about climate disruption.

“Our future is in a very precarious situation, and we need all hands on deck to avoid that calamity. That the call to action is coming from our young people is to their very great credit.”

He sees the strikes as transcending party politics, but he’s nevertheless hopeful that growing public environmental awareness will translate into gains for the Green Party in the upcoming elections.

Olivia Walsh, Clara Kamlah and Charlotte Rogers from Edmund Rice School, Carrigaline. Picture: Dan Linehan

When asked if the Green Party intends to strengthen its links with the students who are organising the strikes, he says some are already members, and he feels the respectful thing to do would be to let them decide their own course of action.

“So far, the marches have been student-led, but it ain’t exclusively for students. They’ve done a fantastic job, but the rest of us need to get involved too.”

Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton praised demonstrators he met the day of the school strikes for their “passion and engagement”. Unimpressed, they told him they want action rather than words.

Dan Boyle is a former Green Party TD and senator, and currently running for Cork City Council in the south-central ward.

“Time can create its own weariness,” he says. “In recent years many of us have felt we have been banging our heads off the wall.

Meeting the secondary school students outside City Hall; taking part in their hugely successful march; seeing how they’ve been so influenced and inspired by Greta Thunberg, gives many of us hope that this generation will demand a far better response on the climate emergency than ours has.

Boyle hopes those students will become involved with the Greens, but he says it’s as important that they bring their environmental passion to other political parties too.

Olivia Walsh, 15, was delighted to see her school, Edmund Rice College, get behind a cause in which she believes passionately.

“I feel like it was the most excited I’ve ever seen people here at anything. I feel climate change is so well-known, but so little is done about it.

"The march had a real feeling that we were doing something positive about it. Just seeing so many people out with face-paint on and making noise gave me such a sense of community.”

She says the strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg prove what a difference just one person can make, but it’s time for greater effort.

“Government needs to take action. Individual people are helping, but big business needs to be forced to take action. It’s already too late for small steps.

“My biggest fear is for future generations. We don’t realise how much we take for granted. Future generations may question why we didn’t take action.”

'A lot of us are very environmentally conscious'

From left: Charlotte Rogers, Aisha Devoy, Cathal Brennan and Clara Kamlah

Aisha Devoy, 17, Bandon Grammar School

“My fear would be of unfulfilled potential. If the passion of the marches isn’t supported by older generations, and by government, it will be a terrible waste.

“In our school, we’ve put in place a ban on single-use plastics. It’s a great initiative, and one we all need to encourage.

"It’s always the small things, but that’s where you start.”

Clara Kamlah, 13, Edmund Rice College, Carrigaline

“My biggest fear is that we will kill all life-forms on Earth. I try to talk to people about climate change.

"Some dismiss it, but that depends on the people.

“People tend not to do anything unless the law impels them.

"We need to change laws in order to change behaviour.”

Caoimhín O’Keeffe-Ioiart, 15, Coláiste an Phiarsaigh, Glanmire

“Our school was closed for the day of the march, but the school advertised the march over the intercom, and maybe 200 people showed up anyway, which is impressive.

“The Irish Government needs to get serious about environmental disruption.

"We need action and not words.”

(Caoimhín is a nephew of the author of this article.)

Charlotte Rogers, 13, Edmund Rice ollege, Carrigaline

“I would say to politicians: We need you to be courageous and lead the way.

"Put limits on CO2 emissions. Use more solar and wind energy.

“Small changes can go a long way. I walk to school, and my mom doesn’t use single-use plastics.”

Cathal Brennan, 18, Bandon Grammar School

“If everyone takes a step forward together, we can effect change.

“Ireland is a small country, but we contribute to the global carbon footprint.

“With climate change, the problem is government inaction.

"What politicians need to realise is that the current generation of students will be voting soon, and a lot of us are very environmentally conscious.”

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